Even This Very Long, Super-Nerdy NBA Podcast Is Making Money
A typical episode of one of the most popular podcasts about professional basketball includes no music, no theme song, no production whatsoever, and features, just for example, an 11-minute discussion of the trade of Allen Crabbe, an unremarkable player going from a mediocre team to a bad one.
“He shot 44 percent from three, shot 46 percent of his shots from three, and had a PER of 11.6,” rattled off co-host Danny Leroux. “Meaning he doesn’t do anything else,” clarified host Nate Duncan. This is followed by a quick dissection of whether the PER metric—Player Efficiency Rating—undervalues the defensive contribution of a player who will never make an all-star team. It is wholly possible that no other national NBA media figure has ever spent 11 straight minutes even thinking about Allen Crabbe.
This is Dunc’d On, a lengthy and very minimally edited conversation between hosts Nate Duncan and Danny Leroux that each week fills somewhere between five and 15 hours of podcast time. A pitch for this sort of program would have almost certainly been laughed out of the room, whether that room was at ESPN’s corporate campus in Bristol, Conn., or a podcast startup in Brooklyn. Who could anticipate that two supernerds talking companionably to each other and the occasional guest about some of the league’s most arcane details would draw, at times, hundreds of thousands of listeners?
Duncan and Leroux will use terms even ardent basketball fans only pretend to understand: non-taxpayer mid-level extensions, Bird rights, Arenas provisions, two-way contracts. They don’t have great radio voices, outsize sports-talk personalities, real access to actual NBA teams, or the ability to break news.
Instead there are hours and hours of programing in which the hosts recap games that aired only on local or subscription-only channels and discuss in minute detail the performances of superstars and lowly bench players with equal emphasis. In special but not infrequent episodes they pretend to be general managers and make trades according to fussy NBA regulations, imaginary transactions of players significantly worse and less interesting than Allen Crabbe. These trades have not happened and almost never do—podcast listeners are, essentially, tuning into a basketball version of Dungeons & Dragons.
“It’s surprising that people are into this nerdy shit. We’re surprised, too, to be honest,” says Duncan.
Yet somehow Duncan and Leroux have managed to make a full-time career out of this. Dunc’d On hovers around the top-five most popular NBA podcasts on the major apps. On Apple’s iTunes there are 800 reviews backing a five-star rating. Dunc’d On, like most podcasts, is kept afloat primarily by advertising, but also, about 750 paid subscribers are on Patreon, a crowdfunding website. Most of those donors pay a $7 monthly fee to receive spreadsheets of salary information on every team.
Dunc’d On is an extreme example of changes taking place in the sports media landscape. Pick a marquee broadcast in a major sport—Monday Night Football or the World Series—and the audience metrics are sure to be showing worrying signs of decline. But at the same time, hardcore enthusiasts have found a new media paradise. The still-young business of podcasting is ideal for small, independent voices: The cost of entry is basically nothing, there's no time limit, it's wholly possible to score large numbers of listeners, major media companies haven't quite figured out how to dominate the medium yet, and there's already an (admittedly flawed) model for making small but sufficient amounts of money.
The early part of the NBA season is the slowest time of the year for Dunc’d On, with about 50,000 listeners per episode. The most exciting stuff comes when there’s no basketball at all—the draft or the beginning of the free-agency period. The most-listened-to episode covered the prospects at Summer League, the off-season showcase for draft picks and players not really good enough for the NBA. More than 140,000 people listened to that two-and-a-half-hour episode.
“The fans, especially younger fans, are extremely educated about the inner workings of the game,” says Brian Windhorst, a basketball journalist at ESPN. “The way that we cover the league now is so much more intricate than we did 10 years ago or even five years ago.” Dunc’d On taps into what seems to be an innate nerdy desire to break down the wall between the spectator and the professional. “Some of the best basketball writing that's happening in the league today involves no access,” says Windhorst.
Instead of exclusive news or slick sound, the podcast is incredibly quick to produce and responsive to the immediacy of fan interest. Dunc’d On posted a 31-minute podcast within an hour of news breaking on Aug. 22 that the Cleveland Cavaliers had traded star point guard Kyrie Irving to their conference rival, the Boston Celtics. The hosts are based in the San Francisco Bay Area, where games end around 10 p.m. instead of 1 a.m., as they do on the East Coast, allowing Duncan and Leroux to grab their microphones after the last buzzer. Fans can be sure there will be an exhaustively nerdy recap in time for the morning commute.
Nate Duncan, 37, once had an hourlong daily trek to his San Francisco law firm job, and he wanted a podcast to catch him up on what he missed in the NBA the night before. His voice gives the impression of basketball player height, and he was in fact on his high school team while growing up in Illinois, with, he says, the skills but not the drive to play in college.
His interest in NBA arcana started innocently enough. “I was reading two or three hours a day, everything I could about the NBA,” he says. He found himself spending free time off reading the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, the behemoth contract between the league and its players. He used his vacations to go to basketball exhibitions in Europe and sports analytics conferences. He soon began writing about the Golden State Warriors for a smallish blog, and that’s how he met Danny Leroux.
Leroux’s career is another sideways journey from law school to podcasts that makes a turn into obsessive interest in basketball’s labor relations. His closest brush with the NBA, he says, was paying off his law school loans by reselling sports tickets. He was working as a campaign manager for a California congressional race when he started writing about the NBA on the side. “One of my specialties was the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Because I was a lawyer, I actually enjoyed reading the documents,” says Leroux
After hitting it off, Duncan and Leroux started their podcast in April 2015, while Duncan was still employed as a lawyer. By that October, he had quit his job to make a living watching and talking about basketball.
As much as Dunc’d On represents an extreme sort of hyperspecific sports medium, it’s also made possible by the specific weirdness of podcasting. The medium, now about a decade old, remains raw as a business. Partly that’s because audience data are primitive compared with, say, web writing. Podcasters host their shows on library platforms such as Libsyn, and individual podcast apps are downloaded or streamed from there. The library platforms know how many times podcast episodes are downloaded, but that’s about it. Podcasters have very little access to even basic information about who’s listening, how many podcasts or episodes they’re listening to, or even how much of an individual episode they complete.
That’s why it’s hard to know exactly how to size up Dunc’d On against other podcasts, almost none of which regularly publicize their download numbers. Serial, the biggest hit of them all, scored nearly 100 million downloads of its first 12 episodes. The Bill Simmons Podcast, arguably the most successful sports entry, hits about 500,000 per episode. Dunc’d On’s numbers put it comfortably in the top tier of NBA podcasts, certainly the most successful independent offering, but the lack of data makes it hard to say much more than that.
“I don't think lack of data is a good thing for advertisers, but it hasn't stopped the advertising ecosystem in podcasting from growing at a very rapid rate,” says Matthew Lieber, co-founder and president of Gimlet Media, the successful podcast startup behind such shows as Reply All and Crimetown.
Faced with basically no data, advertisers rely on direct response. A podcaster will stop the show to deliver an ad with a coupon code unique to that show. Dunc’d On implores its listeners to purchase the Quip electric toothbrush, rides from Lyft, and meal kits from Blue Apron using the code “capspace,” referring to the amount of room in an NBA team’s budget. Advertisers may not know much about a podcast’s listeners, but they can tell whether those listeners are enticed to buy their products.
Many advertisers, including the so-called brand advertisers, such as Ford or Samsung, that want to advertise themselves rather than a single product, have been hesitant to embrace podcasts. Instead, the same few sponsors appear across a wide range of podcasts: Squarespace, Stamps.com, Audible. Those are the companies willing to try something unproven and comfortable with direct response feedback.
The Dunc’d On duo, without guidance from bigger network or media organization, started out by cold-calling advertisers themselves. Now they work with Midroll, which also sells ads for major podcasts such as WTF, the Bill Simmons Podcast, and Comedy Bang! Bang! Their independence frees them to be themselves and sometimes discover a space for growth. It is important to Duncan and Leroux to cover the entire league, including the teams that are undercovered by national media due to a small fanbase or a boring team. “Our most successful episodes are the ones where we talk about a ton of teams at once,” says Duncan.
But secrets like that might not remain secrets for long. Apple, which maintains a bit more than half of the overall podcasting market with its native Podcasts app, is expected soon to start releasing its data to podcast publishers. Suddenly, podcasters will know the demographics and geographic distribution of their listeners, if listeners actually finish episodes, if listeners skip over the commercials, whether listeners replay podcasts.
“I think this is the year when it becomes fully modern,” says Lieber. With podcast networks suddenly able to supply legitimate listener data to advertisers, podcast producers are betting advertisers will begin pouring into an industry that is, says Lieber, doubling its revenue each year.
Dunc’d On has the numbers to entice advertisers—and a low enough overhead to create a nice living for its hosts. “We made the show that I think we both wanted to have out there, the show that we'd want to listen to,” says Duncan. “And it just so happened that the show I’d want to listen to is one that other people do as well. We're doing exactly what we want to be doing, and people seem to really like it. That’s the beauty of it.”